By Vanessa Friedman
Is it fashion’s responsibility to ease acceptance of different identities; to foster tolerance and understanding — or to promote a specific aesthetic expression of liberty?
This may seem like a ridiculously weighty question for an industry built on the supposedly superficial business of selling clothes, as opposed to political philosophies. But it is at the core of a debate currently roiling France.
On the surface, the argument is about the trend — call it that — among a growing number of fashion brands to offer Islamic, or “modest” collections. The spark that seems to have ignited the flames is the introduction of a “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit consisting of a long-sleeved tunic with integral hood and matching trousers, by Marks & Spencer. Though it has been available in certain international markets for three years, it went online in February, the latest in a series of such fashion initiatives from a variety of brands, all of which are now under fire.
A screen grab from the DKNY website.
In 2014, DKNY created a Ramadan capsule collection of its more covered-up items (think jumpsuits, ankle-length shirtdresses and skirts) available in the Middle East.
That was followed the next year by similar ventures from Tommy Hilfiger and Uniqlo. Last year H&M featured a model in a head scarf in its “Close the Loop” sustainable-fashion ad campaign, and Net-a-Porter devoted a section on its website to what it called a “Ramadan edit.”
And in January, Dolce & Gabbana introduced a collection of floral print, lace and polka-dot abayas (loosefitting full-length robes) with matching headscarves sold not only in the Middle East, but also in select Dolce stores in London, Milan, Munich and Paris.
Part of Tommy Hilfiger’s Ramadan collection.
Which meant that, along with the M&S bathing suit, such collections were no longer relegated to a specific geographical niche. They had penetrated the Western mainstream.
That evolution was largely greeted with applause, with Dolce in particular getting kudos for its work. “Why Dolce & Gabbana’s Hijab and Abaya Line Is So Important,” read a headline on the New York magazine website The Cut. “DKNY Just Launched a Collection for Ramadan. And It’s Beautiful,” BuzzFeed cried.
From the Net-a-Porter site.
But recently, Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women’s rights, begged to differ. “What’s at stake is social control over women’s bodies,” she said in an interview with BFMTV, the most popular news network in France. “When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”
She then went even further, comparing Muslim women to “consenting slaves,” but later recanted that part of her statement after a public outcry. Still, it was as if the floodgates had opened.
Shortly after her remarks, Pierre Bergé, the famously tart-tongued co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, gave an interview to the radio station Europe 1 in which he excoriated brands that made clothing aimed at the Islamic market.
“Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion,” he said. “Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.” He then implied that the designers were exploiting a misogynist system that, for financial gain, forces women to hide their bodies: “Renounce the money and have some principles,” he said.
Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women’s rights, opposes having designers create special collections for Muslim women.
Next came a cartoon from the artist Plantu who often works for Le Monde, which was posted on his Facebook page. Titled “Dolce & Gabbana launches a range of hijabs,” it depicted two women in hijabs and abayas, one wearing a belt adorned with sticks of dynamite and asking, “When will the next fashion belt be out?”
And then the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, whom the French left wing weekly Marianne once called the country’s “most influential intellectual,” jumped on the bandwagon, calling in the newspaper Le Monde for a boycott of brands that sell Islamic fashion.
All of this is playing out against a backdrop of increased fear in Europe. Though France has had a long history of discomfort with clothing that demonstrates any religious identity— banning headscarves in public schools for both teachers and students, forbidding public servants from wearing the same, and banning the niqab (a full-face veil showing only the eyes) entirely in public — the garment has remained a lightning rod for the basic argument about what freedom means when applied to fashion in liberal society.
On one side are those who say the social contract demands that everyone eschew symbols of their personal belief systems in service of the secular collective; on the other, those who insist that freedom includes the freedom to wear whatever you want (and sell whatever you want).
It didn’t take long for those in the latter camp to attack the attackers right back. A new hashtag was spawned, #rossignolresignation, and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (the CCIF) issued a news release stating that it was bringing a class-action lawsuit against Minister Rossignol for her statements.
Sarah Dundarawy, a Saudi television presenter living in Dubai, wrote in an email: “I graduated from Boston College in Boston, MA and did my masters at the London School of Economics in London, U.K. In general, I dress modestly and when I am in Saudi I wear an Abaya out of respect for my culture and convenience. Does that make me oppressed? Not beautiful? Of course not. As for the special collection of Abayas designed by Dolce & Gabbana, I saw it a nice gesture and an attempt to appeal to a large segment of the fashion market.”
At The New York Times luxury conference in Versailles last week, Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders and former foreign minister of France, was asked directly what he thought of the issue. He waved his hand and said: “It’s a free market. Let them wear what they want.”
One of Dolce & Gabbana’s collection of headscarves and matching robes.
Things have reached something of a standoff.
Pointedly, the brands that started it all have done their best to stay out of the situation. None have issued public statements, though when asked, they are happy to provide anodyne emails from a “spokesperson.”
“H&M is a global fashion company that takes inspiration from all over the world,” one such response said. “We are proud to be in 61 markets and welcome all people inspired by fashion regardless of ethnic background, gender or culture.”
“M&S provides a wide range of quality swimwear offering our customers lots of choice,” another said. Dolce & Gabbana simply said it did not comment on the matter.
It’s understandable. This is a complicated subject at the best of times, and these are the most fraught of times. And no brand wants to alienate a potential shopper. Yet this silence is also silly.
The history of fashion is, in many ways, about facilitating acceptance; creating a bridge between the unfamiliar or the challenging, be it religious or sexual or gendered or transgressive, and the everyday.
It is arguably one of the things the sharp point of the industry does best, whether by transforming underwear into outerwear, putting women into pants and men into women’s wear or otherwise redesigning the trappings of revolution. (Think of all those fur-lined military surplus coats.)
It forces confrontation, and by “fashionizing” what was hitherto seen as foreign, absorbs it, co-opts it and — to a certain extent — defangs it. Whether the motivation is moral or economic, in the end, the effect may be the same. And that is what matters.
There will be more opportunities to address the issue, because it is not going away anytime soon. Next month a new play likely to reinvigorate the debate is opening in Dijon, France. Written by Myriam Marzouki and specifically addressing Muslim women and their personal relationship to the veil, it is entitled “It’s Our business.” (“Ce Qui Nous Regarde.”)
Perhaps when asked why it created its abaya collection, Dolce & Gabbana and company might say the same thing.